Bringing about Systemic Change through Social Entrepreneurship

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I believe that an understanding of the concepts of social entrepreneurship is critical for church leaders who seek to effect real, sustainable change and address complex social problems incumbent in many communities today. Social entrepreneurship, as defined by Debbi Brock and Susan Steiner, is “the creation of social impact by developing and implementing a sustainable business model which draws on innovative solutions that benefit the disadvantaged and ultimately society at large.”

Could this be the time for your congregation to take on something that cannot be accomplished easily or quickly, but has the potential to make a difference for years to
come for the people of your community?

It is difficult to think of a social change movement over the course of history that has not involved some form of social innovation and visionary social entrepreneurship. From Mohandas Gandhi’s revolutionary challenge to the people of India, to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s acts of resistance against Nazism, to the Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and human rights movements, one constant seems to be innovative social entrepreneurs who have sought sustained, systemic transformation through vision, perseverance, and organization.

Vision and Social Entrepreneurship

One common characteristic held by social entrepreneurs is that of vision. Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus is founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and considered to be the inventor of micro-credit. He stated that “one day our children and grandchildren will be visiting the ‘poverty museum’ to see what poverty was really like.” This is a provocative, visionary, and hopeful statement that speaks to Yunus’s very real expectation that poverty will someday be eradicated through the employment of micro-credit and by empowering women in business.

Another exemplar of extraordinary vision is Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, the founder of the Aravind Eye Hospital system in India. There are over 40 million people who are blind in the world, and over 12 million of those persons live in India. He maintains that 80 percent of blindness is needless. And so the Aravind Eye vision is the eradication of needless blindness through prevention and cure.

A Church’s Vision for Eliminating Educational Disparities

Similarly, church leaders with compelling vision can effect important change. Eleven years ago, Rev. Cecil Gray and some of his church members sought to address disparities in educational achievement among the children in the community surrounding Northwood-Appold United Methodist Church in Baltimore. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that “the test of the morality of a society is how it treats its children.” Nelson Mandela stated that “education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.”

The challenges in this Baltimore neighborhood were similar to those in many urban communities. Differences in academic achievement among Black, Hispanic, and White children appear early in the elementary school years and persist throughout the elementary and secondary school years. A comparison of the performance of elementary school children in Baltimore City with more affluent counties in the state shows marked gaps in student academic performance, teacher qualification, and per student spending in the respective jurisdictions.

In 2005, Pastor Gray and his church launched a public charter school, the Northwood Appold Community Academy (NACA). Located in what was once the Christian education wing of the church, NACA (www.nacacad.org) is an innovative, entrepreneurial approach that comprehensively addresses educational disparities in an under-served community.

Such entrepreneurial approaches put their focus on the potential long-term impact they can make. Such efforts have greater potential to effect systemic change than most traditional mission and outreach work by churches. They keep the social impact and social value of the endeavor at the forefront of all their planning. Social entrepreneurs develop initiatives directed at achieving sustainable social change through expected outcomes with the potential to improve not only their communities but society at-large.

Every congregation has to discern where God can most use them to help others, especially the most vulnerable among us. Could this be the time for your congregation to take on something that cannot be accomplished easily or quickly, but has the potential to make a difference for years to come for the people of your community?


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About Author

Tony Hunt

Dr. C. Anthony Hunt is pastor of Epworth United Methodist Chapel in Baltimore, Maryland. He is also Professor of Systematic, Moral and Practical Theology, and Dunning Permanent Distinguished Lecturer at St. Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore. Dr. Hunt also teaches on the adjunct faculties at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, and United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.


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